I’m taking a day off cycling to explore a sleepy town in the rugged mountains of western Tasmania. Most tourists pass by Queenstown without stopping, turned off by the barren landscape, but it was once a thriving mining town with immense riches – the richest mining town in the world, in fact.

This is part of a month-long cycle tour around Tasmania. If you missed the start of this journey, here’s how it all got started.

Classic Queenstown architecture
Classic Queenstown architecture
Queenstown and her copper-rich mountains
Queenstown and her copper-rich mountains

Gold was discovered here in the 1880s but a shrewd investor soon discovered that the real money was in the massive deposits of copper found in the surrounding mountains. What better way to learn about that history than to go underground. When you visit the mine here, you’re not just exploring history but seeing an active, working mine that is still today one of Australia’s largest producers.

Dennis gets geared up for going underground

Dennis was our guide for the Mt Lyell Underground Mine Tour. He had us strap on a hard-hat, miner’s lamp, gumboots, and a safety mask that filters out toxic chemicals in case of a fire or collapse (!).

Mount Lyell Mine Photo credit: Queenstown Heritage Tours
Mount Lyell Mine
Photo credit: Queenstown Heritage Tours

I’ve visited lots of retired historic mines but this is the first working mine I’ve ever been inside. I was surprised how large it is. Dennis drove his Landrover right inside for 6km and more than 500m down into the mine, showing us huge cavernous working spaces and massive machinery that crushes the rock ready to be hoisted to the surface.

Driving deep into the mine Photo credit: Queenstown Heritage Tours
Driving deep into the mine
Photo credit: Queenstown Heritage Tours

With the price of copper quite low at the moment, the mine is in “maintenance” mode, so there’s no active blasting but we still got to meet some real miners working in the main shaft. They were absolutely filthy (just like a good miner should be!).

Exploring the depths of a working copper mine Photo credit: Queenstown Heritage Tours
Exploring the depths of a working copper mine
Photo credit: Queenstown Heritage Tours

Queenstown itself is an interesting place to visit. The hills surrounding the town are scarred and barren from a hundred plus years of mining activity. When you first arrive, it feels very drab, as if all that mining dust settled into a thick layer on the town.

Believe it or not… Queenstown’s best café

If you take a moment to peak underneath that layer of dust, you’ll discover a very vibrant place full of stories and colour.

Downtown Queenstown
Downtown Queenstown
Just waiting
Just waiting
Texture and colour
Texture and colour

One such place is Empire Hotel. This iconic landmark dating back to 1901 is most famous for its ornate central staircase. It’s crazy how it got built. Locally cut blackwood was sent all the way to England to be crafted and carved into a staircase and returned to Queenstown three years later where it was assembled in the hotel! Locals are immensely proud of it.

Queenstown's Empire Hotel
Queenstown’s Empire Hotel
Empire Hotel's infamous staircase
Empire Hotel’s infamous staircase

I’ve had a great day exploring Queenstown. Mining towns are rugged places with rough edges but this one has a lot of character under the surface. However, as I walked out of the Empire Hotel after dinner, I met head-on with a wall of thick bush fire smoke. What does this mean for cycling tomorrow?!

Bushfire smoke thick like fog
Bushfire smoke thick like fog

Up next, my plans get shut down by bushfires.

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3 thoughts on “The richest mining town in the world

    1. It sure is. I know that Queenstown isn’t the prettiest place but if you ever find yourself passing through, I highly recommend the mine tour.

      1. It’s amazing how sometimes the most interesting places are under the surface. Glad you enjoyed it. Will keep it in mind next time we visit Tassie.

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